Here is what a Trump-Rouhani meeting might entail

Iran’s strategy is to dangle a meeting and then retract to drive up the potential payoff

Published : 30 Aug 2019 06:08 PM | Updated : 05 Sep 2020 10:00 PM

I learnt that the hard way in 1980, when as a young reporter I was arrested by Revolutionary Guards in Isfahan for trying to find the 52 Americans who had been taken hostage at the US Embassy the year before.

“You’re a spy,” my interrogator barked. “I’m a journalist,” I replied with as much confidence as I could find. He didn’t seem to think there was a difference.

After four hours, he got a telephone call. “You’re free to go,” he growled at me.

That wasn’t the end of the story.

I was lucky. The hostages were held for 444 days. Ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution, leaders in Washington and Tehran have demonised the other side. From time to time, they quietly find common ground in places like Afghanistan. In 2015, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development programme in a landmark deal with the US and five other world powers.

But Iran remains a pariah, unpopular with both parties, and Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last year, denouncing Tehran’s “malign” activities across the Middle East.

Hence the headlines when President Donald Trump, at the Group of 7 summit in France, did an about-face and boasted of his friendship with Iranians in New York and offered to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“I have a good feeling,” Trump said in Biarritz. “I think he is going to want to meet and get their situation straightened out.”

Rouhani, in Tehran, initially sounded interested. “If I know that in meeting with somebody the problem of my country would be solved, I wouldn’t hesitate,” he said. “We have to negotiate.”

By Tuesday, Rouhani was having second thoughts. “First, the US should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said. Otherwise, he added, a meeting would be nothing but “a photo op.”

Actually, a photo op may be exactly what Trump is looking for — much like the three summits he’s held with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un since June 2018. Those meetings have enabled Trump to claim that he rescued Asia from the brink of war, even though he hasn’t gotten Kim to stop expanding his nuclear arsenal.

Now, presumably, the president hopes to fend off possible war in the Arabian Gulf as well, and cast himself as a global peacemaker.

At the moment, oddly, Trump appears more interested in negotiations, even as Iran’s economy is being battered by US sanctions. But Trump is heading into a re-election campaign, and wants a foreign policy win. Rouhani is a lame duck, although his party faces parliamentary elections in February.

Iran’s reluctance to parley comes from the very top. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long excoriated the United States as the chief cause of his nation’s woes. But it may also be a bargaining ploy.

“Lifting the sanctions is Iran’s immediate goal,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution, told me. “It would be consistent with Iran’s diplomatic strategy to dangle a meeting and then retract it in hopes of driving up the potential payoff.”

Trump’s sanctions have slashed Iran’s income from oil exports, thrown its economy into recession and driven inflation over 35 per cent. He wants to force Iran to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear accord to get rid of “sunset clauses” that would lift limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment in several years.

Trump deserves credit on at least one count: If his enthusiasm for negotiations is real, at least he’s looking for a way to use the sanctions to win diplomatic achievements — not merely to wreck Iran’s economy. Trump has been more flexible toward Iran than his hard-line lieutenants, especially national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. 

Last year, Pompeo issued 12 sweeping demands of the Tehran regime, including changes in its domestic policy. In May, Trump said he had only one goal: “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons. That’s all we want.”

In France, Trump expanded that to say he also wants Iran to give up its ballistic missiles, which were not covered in the nuclear deal. That may be a much tougher argument to make.

Negotiations with Iran were always going to be difficult to launch. In addition to the heavy weight of history, hardliners in both governments will dig in their heels against concessions.

What’s encouraging is that after several scary near-clashes in the Gulf, both countries say they want to start negotiations, not war. They’re arguably closer to talks than at any time since Trump arrived in the White House. But it won’t be as easy as it looked for that magic moment in Biarritz.

Doyle McManus is a noted American journalist and political columnist.